Michigan Ladder Co. expanding Ypsilanti manufacturing operation in shift away from foreign suppliers
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
The company, which previously contracted with foreign suppliers to produce its fiberglass ladders, plans to invest several hundred thousand dollars to start manufacturing them in Ypsilanti, instead.
In the face of dynamic economic changes and the emergence of new technologies and foreign competitors, Michigan Ladder has navigated 110 years of economic changes by staying true to its core business model.
Inside its 75,000-square-foot ladder warehouse on East Forest Avenue, wooden, fiberglass and aluminum ladders line the walls, waiting to be shipped in bulk orders to commercial and industrial clients.
The company’s 20 full-time employees help assemble wooden ladders, but fiberglass and aluminum ladders are shipped into the warehouse from oversea contractors.
However, by the end of November, the company plans to invest in new manufacturing equipment, allowing it to stop purchasing fiberglass ladders overseas and begin manufacturing them in the Ypsilanti warehouse.
The change comes as the company is in the midst of a sale to its CEO, Tom Harrison, who is leading the manufacturing expansion.
Harrison said that although the company has considered expanding its local manufacturing capacity for years, it seemed to make financial sense for the first time this year.
“We finally felt that we could come up with a way to do it economically,” he said.
Harrison is in the process of purchasing Michigan Ladder from its current owners, the same family that has run the company since the 1920s.
Bob Nissly, the company’s president, said that although his family has owned Michigan Ladder for more than 80 years, it’s time for him to officially retire and entrust the company to Harrison.
“Tom is already taking good care of it and doing well,” Nissly said. “He’s sort of like a son to me and so in a way, it’s nice to have this continue to be a family operation.”
As Harrison transitions into his new role as the owner of the company, he said he hopes to set up an assembly line-style operation and begin manufacturing fiberglass ladders by the end of the year.
He said the fiberglass ladders the Michigan Ladder Co. currently orders from overseas suppliers account for half the company’s sales.
“All of our competitors have left the country and do not manufacture fiberglass in the United States,” Harrison said. “People export somewhere else because they can get the product cheaper.”
But Harrison believes the company can benefit from manufacturing them locally, and do so cost effectively — in part because of the saved shipping costs.
Although he predicted it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in machinery, equipment, tooling and raw materials, he believes it will pay off economically because the advantage of outsourcing will deteriorate over time.
“You’ll see more manufacturing coming back here over time, but we just decided we’re not going to wait,” he said. “China’s wages are going up, diesel fuel for shipping costs is getting more expensive, and government support for industries in China will go away over time.”
Once that disparity disappears, Harrison said it would make more sense to manufacture in the United States.
“We’re just going to be ahead of the curve,” he said.
Nissly agreed with Harrison’s vision, and said he’d considered manufacturing fiberglass ladders in Ypsilanti for the last 20 years, but it never seemed financially feasible.
But with advances in technology and high freight costs, he said it’s the perfect time to begin marketing an American-made product.
“This is just another product that can be marketed to our same type of customers,” Nissly said. “There are still a lot of opportunities in the ladder business because it’s a necessary commodity.”
And having a product that is a “necessary commodity” is precisely what has allowed Michigan Ladder to survive for more than a century, even during economic downturns, Nissly said.
“The ladder market is definitely difficult, but I think our future is fine,” he said. “If you can carve your niche like we have, then that’s what’s important. I’m very optimistic for Tom.”
Paul Schreiber, mayor of Ypsilanti, pointed out that the Michigan Ladder Co. is more than just the oldest ladder manufacturer in the United States; it’s a landmark business for the city of Ypsilanti.
“I think the fact that they are doing something that is not being done anywhere in the U.S. makes me hopeful they’ll be able to stay in town and keep employing people in the area,” he said. “A small city like Ypsilanti is dependent upon its small businesses.”
And with plans to hire up to 10 new employees over the next 5 years to help with fiberglass manufacturing, it doesn’t appear that this old-economy Ypsilanti business is going anywhere soon.
Already looking ahead to the future, Harrison said he hopes to eventually begin manufacturing even more products locally, such as step and extension ladders.
“For the foreseeable future, I think it’s a safe bet that we would stay here and continue to expand here in Ypsilanti as much as we can,” he said.